Mainstream awareness of the ideas of self-care, mental health therapy, and wellness are at an all-time high now, following the traumatic events of the 2020 - 2023 Covid-19 pandemic. Energy medicine is also a trending topic. Even before the lockdown pushed people to their limits, a wave was moving through the world in which people began searching for more meaningful content and activities and started rejecting the ways of the recent past. Younger people started filling yoga studios, tai chi schools, qigong and meditation classes to the surprise and delight of teachers around the world. This rise in self-awareness and healthier choices has been ongoing since the advent of the internet in the mid-nineties.
The electronic expansion of humanity’s mind has accelerated the growth of human consciousness, leading to revolutions in social justice and human rights, and improving access to deep sources of higher knowledge. Some say that the “singularity”, in which our collective consciousness merges with artificial super intelligence, is just around the corner, within decades.
This external material expansion of consciousness is mirroring an internal spiritual expansion that has been rapidly unfolding in recent decades, with roots dating back thousands of years. It is ironic that the Chinese invasion and ongoing destruction of Tibet and its culture resulted in the previously unknown country and its spiritual leader the Dalai Lama becoming known internationally, shining a bright light on traditional Buddhism. Previously rare texts and teaching became more available to the global public, and deep topics were discussed in annual meetings between monks, philosophers, and researchers, and studied by scientists in many fields. In fact, it has been during these meetings with the Dalai Lama since 1987 that he has proposed many of the experiments and lines of research that have led to several of the breakthroughs that we benefit from today, including our understanding of neuroplasticity, cognitive science, emotional regulation, and DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy). These modern breakthroughs stem from ancient wisdom directly.
Self-Care Science 2,000 Years Ago
The exercises and meditation that are now popularly practiced as modern yogā and qìgōng also have roots dating back thousands of years through continuous lineages. Many brilliant teachers throughout Chinese history have created and developed qìgōng theory and exercises. Earlier tribal exercises imitating the movement and spirit of animals, breath work and massage (Dao Yin and Tu Na) gradually evolved into more complex forms. The Dao De Jing was written around 400 BCE and is considered an early text of profound qìgōng theory and philosophy.
One of the earliest complete series of exercises is said to be the origin of medical qìgōng. The Five Animal Sports (Wu Qin Xi, 五禽戲) was created by Dr. Jun Qing (君倩) and later modified and publicized by the well-known medical qìgōng doctor, Hua Tuo (華佗) during the Three Kingdoms Period (三國) (221-265 CE). Qìgōng was developed independently across China by philosophers, doctors, monks and nuns in Buddhist and Daoist monasteries, and martial artists starting in the Liang dynasty (502 CE). Chinese qìgōng, or nèigōng (internal skill) as it was called in earlier times, mapped out a clear process of internal alchemy specializing in the refinement and transmutation of the "Three Treasures" or Sān Bǎo (三寶). These are the jing (essence: hormones and neurochemistry), qì (energy or bioelectricity), and shen (spirit, morale). The modern field of psychoneuroimmunology is studying this topic in their own way, with research showing that a positive mental attitude modulates your immune system and improves your longevity.
In general, these qìgōng can be categorized into serving the purposes of maintaining health, curing sickness, prolonging life, energizing the body for martial arts, and enlightenment meditation. Chinese practitioners were the original scientists of the subtle body, working with their Qì to promote health, healing, and extraordinary vitality and longevity. By documenting their trials and errors over thousands of years, keeping only the most effective techniques, Chinese qìgōng masters developed a reliable, tried-and-true system of expertly understanding the body’s bioelectric system, amassing a wealth of empirical evidence.
With the arrival of Bodhidharma, or Da Mo, as the abbot of the first Shaolin Temple in Henan province around 500 CE, a clear link was established between China and the “middle-way” teachings from India, Nepal and Oḍḍiyāna (now Pakistan). The prevailing teaching of Da Mo and other Buddhists at the time was tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayāna (Indestructible / Diamond Vehicle), a perfect harmony between teachings on emptiness and “clear light” practice. Bodhidharma focused on the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, teaching core Mahāyāna Buddhist concepts including the philosophy of Yogācāra school, the doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā), and the doctrines of buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha), and the luminous mind (prabhāsvaracitta). All Buddhism involves learning to overcome your afflictive emotions and detach from a false view of reality. But this teaching also involved the manipulation of one’s energy, called “winds” in the sutras, through the meridians and leading qì / prāna into the central channel to unlock one’s full potential, energizing the brain to attain complete enlightenment (nothing short of omniscience and immortality). This “secret lineage” can be traced back to the teaching of Sidhartha Gautama, the original Buddha.
Da Mo transmitted this teaching into China and contributed greatly to the development of qìgōng and the internal martial arts which developed shortly after his time at Shaolin. Very few historical records exist from this period. But it is known that the internal martial arts began developing around 550 CE with forms such as Vajraquán, now lost from the modern-day Shaolin curriculum, which was conspicuously similar to what we now call Tàijíquán.
Earlier in 435 CE, another Mahāyāna monk named Gunabhadra traveled to China as an honored guest of Emperor Wen of Liu Song, the ruler of South China at the time. While there, he translated the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra from Sanskrit to Chinese, along with a collection of core sutras.
We may never learn how much exchange occurred between Chinese practitioners and those from the surrounding areas, and what advancements in energy exercises occurred before Chinese qìgōng and acupuncture became so sophisticated. But it is known in Buddhist history that the area Bodhidharma came from was famous for producing many accomplished yogis and enlightened masters. Oḍḍiyāna, called Orgyen in Tibetan, translates as “to fly and progress” and is known as the land where the “Secret Mantra” originated.
Qigong before China
“According to the teaching of Vajrayana, there is an intimate relationship between the mind and the movement of vital energy or “wind” in the body. It is said the mind rides the wind, or that the mind and wind are inseparable. This can be noticed when calm abiding (meditation) is stabilized. When the ultimate realization of true nature takes place, what happens on the psychophysical level is that the wind enters the central channel (sanskrit “avadhuti”), the main artery of movement of energy in the body. On the other hand, a practitioner may choose to work at it from the other side, to cultivate these energies intentionally and cause the wind to enter the central channel through various physical techniques, spontaneously bringing about realization.” - Jamgön Kongtrül
This tantric meditation and energy training had its own ancient roots in Mahāyāna (Greater Vehicle) teaching, which began to be formalized in writing around 400 BCE. Mahāyāna was never a separate monastic sect outside of the early schools, but rather one of the paths of study based on the aptitude of the student. One of Buddha’s gifts was being able to teach different people with different methods, designed to suit their innate predisposition.
Some students would focus on reading sutras; scripture summarizing Buddha’s teaching, often in the form of a transcript. Others would focus on chanting and rituals to purify the mind, repeating sacred mantras, words, or phrases. And others used tantra, texts weaving together wisdom and physical instructions to lead the energy. These "pith instructions" or "skillful means" were considered secrets and reserved for advanced yogis, taught continuously in an oral lineage since the time of Buddha (500 BCE), and even pre-Buddhist Vedic texts (700 - 1000 BC). Mahāyāna existed within the early Buddhist schools as a certain set of ideals and texts for bodhisattvas. These 'esoteric' teachings were not available outside of monastic life until centuries after the Buddha. Only as recently as the 1970s and 80s did tantric details and the related deeper qìgōng theory become revealed outside of monasteries to the greater public.
The Buddha (566-486 BCE) taught three major cycles of teaching over the course of his life, called the “Three Turnings”. These are sometimes considered to be three different courses of study toward enlightenment. But they can also be considered progressive stages of practice, in which the understanding becomes more refined. The first two turnings are considered to be provisional, leading to partial understanding and the possibility of future enlightenment. The third teaching, which included the energy work and meditation we now practice as qìgōng, is said to present the final truth without a need for further analysis and discussion and offers the potential of enlightenment in a single lifetime.
The “Secret Mantra” method in its “Completion stage” involves using the mind’s innate luminosity as the path, supported with special meditations and energy exercises. This is said to have been taught by the Buddha in his lifetime, but only passed on as an oral tradition from teacher to student to maintain its correct practice.
“This path is unknown even in the most secret mother tantras and other anuttara scriptures. It is extremely hidden. Indeed, this path is not named even in the texts belonging to the outer and inner cycles of Great Perfection. It is the quintessential path of the heart-essence of luminosity, the specific feature of which is the direct utilization, as the path, of actual Buddhahood itself.” - Jamgön Kongtrül
The Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama, described this experience and realized this nonconceptual method could not be openly taught to beginners. After his enlightenment, Buddha remained silent for 49 days. He thought,
“I have realized the most profound and subtle Dharma, the clear light free of all complexity. However, this is much too deep for normal people to understand. Therefore, I will remain silent.”
What is “emptiness”?
All roads lead to the same result, revealing the true nature of the mind by removing blockages and obscurations, resulting in a direct experience of the unity of luminous primordial awareness and emptiness. Emptiness is not a nihilistic experience, but rather a fresh awareness and observation of the present moment without filtering, categorizing, judging, or identifying with anything. Physically it can be somewhat like experiencing your body on an atomic level, realizing that your mind IS energy.
Emptiness is “not grasping at form, not grasping at sensation, perception, volitions and cognition”. This even includes not grasping or thinking about qìgōng theory or correct Buddhist ideas (such as "emptiness"), since these things are ultimately all empty concepts as well. Prajñāpāramitā, the Perfection of Wisdom or Transcendental Knowledge was a prevalent topic of study 100 BCE - 600 AD. This is synonymous with emptiness, suchness, and the lineages of Dzogchen, Chan, and Zen.
In general, practitioners in this lineage surmises that “Those who seek the truth must turn to direct yogic experience, should they hope to acquire realization." Even the path of reading and reflecting on sutras is meant to lead the reader to experience transcendental meditation themselves.
Mahāyāna practice also involves a compassionate inner motivation called bodhicitta (awakening mind) to achieve enlightenment in order to help all other beings, rather than selfishly floating off to nirvana / heaven. This is considered a naturally occurring universal principle of religious motivation, an aspect of human evolution toward its highest consciousness. It also suggests that because ascended masters have attained immortality and omniscience, they are still present in some capacity on Earth and can assist practitioners who connect with them through their concentrated minds. Padmasambhava, the second Buddha who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is one such teacher. Padmasambhava was discussed by name by Buddha in the early sutras, prophesied as a master greater than himself who will rise in the East.
“Through the samadhi of suchness, decide that all phenomena are your own mind and practice nonthought in the unfabricated nature of mind. Practice until you realize it…That is to practice the cognizant and yet nonconceptual inseparability of manifestation and emptiness. It is like space permeated by light, being cognizant while manifesting and nonconceptual while being cognizant.”
“In sentient beings, who have a form produced through ignorance, the channels of disturbing emotions have great strength, the karmic wind has great force, and the wisdom channels and wide require skill to be found; therefore, it is most important to train in the channels and winds…Training in the channels and winds while in the human form transforms it into the wisdom body.” - Padmasambhava
Rather than overcoming or rejecting emotions, some tantric practitioners instead utilize strong anger or desire as antidote to delusion, transforming normal emotions into a powerful energy source. Because tantra will sometimes utilize sexual energy (kundalini), solo or with a partner, it was kept secret and only taught to more advanced practitioners. The practice develops deep meditative absorption and a high state of energy led through central channel into the brain, “reopening the third eye”. This training is not to the public because it requires many prerequisites and guidance from an experienced teacher. It is repeatedly mentioned that the details of this should not be shared with non-practitioners or taught openly except to students with a higher aptitude, because it could be misunderstood as the normal behavior of desire and be harmful to the Dharma. This appears to have been the case in India, where the more esoteric practices became distorted, resulting in the fade of Buddhist practice.
All ignorantly generated desires and selfishness must be overcome to achieve enlightenment. However, the tremendous energy related to desire is an indispensable resource that can be skillfully utilized to empower rather than interfere with practice.
Body, Mind, Spirit
In the oldest texts of Buddhism, along with improved morality and logical philosophy, the focus is on meditation, dhyāna, to withdraw the mind from the automatic responses to sense-impressions, and transcend all obscurations and defilements, leading to a "state of perfect equanimity and awareness." Meditation and mindful behavior were the core practice of pre-sectarian Buddhism.
Consciousness was studied in-depth, analyzed, and categorized into eight levels, from basic mental function to the most subtle level. The eighth consciousness, ālaya-vijñāna (storehouse consciousness) was defined as the storehouse of all karmic seeds, where they gradually matured until ripe, at which point they manifested as karmic consequences. It is the most fundamental essence of our being, considered the "basic consciousness”, and what experiences rebirth into future lives and what is reborn. It simultaneously acts as a storage place for karmic latencies and as a fertile matrix of predispositions that bring karma to a state of fruition. In the Yogācāra system, all experience without exception is said to result from karma or mental intention, either arising from one's own past intentions and behavior or from other minds.
In our materialistic times, it’s common to be cynical or even nihilistic, and discard any aspects of this lineage that seem supernatural and difficult to relate to. It’s easy to arrive at a belief that nothing really matters, no one is in charge, and behave from a baseline of depression and disappointment. Investing in the idea that you may actually be an immortal energetic mindstream passing from body to body within a framework of karmic consequences requires a leap of faith or transformative event. The first step is to practice regularly.
Meditation and qìgōng are mainly a subjective, internal experience and it can be confusing to decide which way to proceed. In today’s increasingly fast and chaotic world, traditional sources of teaching offer time-tested methods to help you return to a more natural, peaceful state. Qìgōng masters over the centuries have passed down to us a clear path forward, so you may preserve your physical health and eventually focus on more spiritual pursuits.
• Maintain your fitness and wellness by practicing simple qìgōng exercises regularly.
• Cure sickness and prevent or heal disease with a dedicated practice targeting the ailment.
• Prolong your lifespan by balancing jing, qì, and shen, and develop a positive mental attitude.
• Increase the quantity and quality of qì circulation for martial arts or general activities.
• Basic meditation clears the mind, calms the nerves, and makes you balanced and centered.
• Intermediate meditation resolves your afflictive emotions and helps you experience emptiness and clarity.
• Advanced meditation may lead you to experience the true nature of reality and attain complete enlightenment.
This is article 2 in a 3-part series. Next, we’ll look at the details of the human energetic system and bioelectricity, or qì.
The above is an original article by David Silver, author of several books, and video producer for YMAA Publication Center. Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming assigned this writing project to David as part of his certification process as YMAA Qigong Master which began in May 2001 and was accomplished in September 2023.